Saturday, January 31, 2009

Saturday Morning Musings - the unforeseen effects of Women's Liberation - 1

This post continues my musings on social and cultural change, using women's liberation to tease out some of the complexities and unforeseen effects that can arise from change.

To avoid unnecessary argument of the type I got into at a function a little while ago on this issue, I will make my own position clear up front.

I believe that gender blindness - treating people as people independent of gender - is very important. I am strongly opposed to gender based social, institutional and legal barriers that prevent women achieving their full potential within the bounds of what they want to achieve and are prepared to pay the price for.

Phew. That said, what on earth am I talking about? It's just that women's liberation has had some very unexpected results.

In my post Ladettes - girls acting like boys I talked about one, the way that some groups of young women have, or so it is argued, taken on the undesirable characteristics of males. This apparent trend led Eva Cox, one of Australia's leading feminists, to complain:

"For women looking for equal status, sometimes by being equal to inappropriate male culture is the only way to go."

I think that Eva Cox is wrong, that the ladettes are a sign of a far more complex process. However, her quoted response is indicative of something else, the confusions that have arisen in the women's movement over the apparent results of their earlier efforts.

Like many social revolutions, the triumph of the women's movement seemed to occur quite quickly.

The traditional concept of family (traditional as in well ensconced) with its gender roles seemed alive and well in Australia of the 1950s. By the 1980s it had gone, swept away in a tide of social change. The concept of "the family" survived, but in a strangely attenuated form.

The early women's movements focused on the achievement of civil and legal rights for women. I, for one, had not realised just how limited these were in the quite recent past until I came to look at the history of the family.

A key focus was on the right to vote. In an Australian context, women achieved the right to vote in New Zealand in 1893, in South Australia in 1895 (women were also allowed to stand for Parliament) and in the Commonwealth of Australia in 1902.

The women's movement that emerged in Australia in the 1950s, again part of a global movement, was different in that it focused on the role of women as well as women's rights.

By the time I was at university in the 1960s, the changing role of women was much discussed. By the 1970s, this was being translated into legislation. This process reached its peak in the 1980s, with the sometimes obsessive desire to rid the English language of every form of sexist language.

Language is important because every social change involved sometimes rigid exclusion of certain words, often forced adoption of alternative expressions. All revolutionaries know that what we think is defined in some way by what we speak. All revolutionaries use language as a political weapon.

Looking back from 2008, the 1980s' obsession with gender correct language seems another world, as was the day-to-day dominance of women's issues.

I find this hard to explain. It really was pervasive, at least within the Commonwealth Public Service. It was enforced by circular, enshrined in style guides, enforced through personnel manuals.

Here its probably true to say, and this is really a different topic, that official agencies necessarily reflect the dominant official views in ways not necessarily representative of language and actions in the broader community.

The rise of women's liberation was not welcomed by all women.

My mother was born in 1912. She grew up in a world in which the traditional model still held true. Women generally worked until marriage, then focused on the home. So in my mother's case, she stopped working following her marriage in 1944.

My mother also lived in a world - Armidale - that in some ways has been a microcosm of change because it combines three very different groups - town, gown and country - in a single relatively small community.

In the context we are talking about, the university was the hotbed of women's liberation. It is also true that at least some university women looked down on those with less education. In my mother's case, she had done librarian training, but not a degree. She was made conscious of her lesser education.

All this came to a head one day. I do not remember the trigger, perhaps a University Women's Association meeting.

Normally a gentle woman who used restrained language, she let rip. The core of her complaint was that women's liberation invalidated, devalued, the role she had chosen as full time wife and mother.

As a wife she had supported her husband, including all the social entertaining and social secretary work that went with being the wife of a senior academic in a small community.

There were then no external alternatives. The restaurants that we take for granted today did not exist. All entertaining was home based. Year after year she put on dinner parties for visitors, played the social networking role, patted people down, was nice to people she did not necessarily like.

Don't get me wrong. My mother was a very sociable woman with an absolutely wicked sense of humour in private. Most of the time she really enjoyed her role and was punctilious in keeping in touch with an ever widening circle of friends and contacts.

This included some of the difficult ones who, with time, came to see her as a true friend and confidant. Always slightly insecure, I doubt that my mother had any idea as to how widely she was liked.

My mother's outburst was unusual, but did capture the views of many women at the time. How do you support a movement that seems to attack the very foundations on which you have based your life?

The impact of women's liberation on family structures is complicated because women's liberation was one of a number of movements at that time that between them had a profound effect on Australian society. However, we can tease this out a little by looking at some examples.

The idea of the family - mum, dad, the kids - was deeply embedded.

In social terms, dad was the bread winner, mum the home care.

This affected social attitudes. One traditional phrase still with us today among some groups is that so and so was a good provider. That is, dad earned enough money to support the family, did not fritter it away on the pub or gambling.

This was especially important among women in working class families. To be seen as a good provider was an important compliment. Much could be forgiven if you were a good provider.

It also affected legislation and public policy. The concept of a living wage - the amount of money a man needed to earn to support his family - was built into legislation. Known as the basic wage, this formed to core of industrial relations. It also led to the exclusion of women from work after marriage because they competed with the male bread winner.

One partial effect of the rise of women's liberation was the rise of the two income family.

Many married working class women had always had to work. Now the increasing expectation was that all women should work, should seek careers. In turn, this led to a rapid growth in the female participation rate - the proportion of working age women in the work force - that helped fuel Australian economic growth. The workforce rose faster than the population.

Women's liberation was not the only cause. Changing social expectations were also important - we wanted more goods and services, more freedoms.

But how do you maintain a simple concept such as the living wage in a world where families have multiple income earners? The answer is that you cannot. At least, we have not so far been able to do this.

I am not suggesting that women's liberation and the consequent social changes were the only cause of the destruction of the living wage concept. There were other forces at work as well. However, they were important contributors.

Women's liberation and the rise of the two income family were associated with - reinforced by and in turn reinforcing - another change, growing divorce rates.

The traditional family structures and the social and legal forms that reinforced this placed considerable pressure on couples, and especially wives, to stay in marriages that were in some ways unhappy.

I say especially wives because limited female employment opportunities really limited women's choices. Stay unhappy but eat. Leave and face financial ruin.

Australia's Family Law Act with its no fault divorce combined with widening work opportunities for women to unleash a torrent of divorces.

Am I opposed to the Act? No, I am not. I am just talking about consequences.

Today's young people are the children of the Family Law Act.

Talking to them, their condemnations of the inability of their parents to stay together, of the disruption caused by divorce, are harsh. They do not want to put their children through the same pain.

This feeds back into changing social attitudes, including the role of women.

Many women from the high water mark of feminism are distressed by what they see as the conservatism of the young, their apparent rejection of feminist ideals. They also struggle with growing attacks from adults including former colleagues who argue that feminism has failed.

The problem is that feminism was successful. The world has simply moved on. However, there are two different but linked social trends involved.

At one level, Australia's young have simply absorbed the key message of feminism, that girls have the right of choice.

This is a world not of stereotypes, but of individual choice. Things that the feminists fought for are now taken for granted. However, it is also a far more complex world in that choices have to be made on an individual basis, negotiated between partners. This includes variants of traditional relationships.

At a second level, there is a growing conservatism in Australian society that includes the young, although the rise of conservatism is most marked among their parents.

At the youth level this is concealed to some degree because attitudes to sexuality and personal presentation have changed. This is a world of bling, raunch, of overt sexuality that shocks many older Australians.

I do not want to get involved in a discussion of sexuality in this post because it lies outside the scope of my current focus. My point is that when I talk to the young - I accept that I work from a limited sample - I find their views quite conservative.

I will finish this discussion in my next post.


Anonymous said...

You are opening a can or worms there Jim and I can not wait to see what your lady readers will comment. I shall comment fully when you conclude. Very interesting start there.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi Ramana

I wonder how much of the things that I talk about are Australian, how many have resonances in India. Would be interested in your comments here.

Anonymous said...

Oh, we have enough and more of the same here and some totally unforgivable male chauvinism cropping up. There are two issues here. One, a lunatic Hindu fringe which believes that anything modern should be destroyed, thankfully a minuscule minority,( and a feminine inability to understand what is modern and what is western and doing more of the latter and getting into problems with a society still coming to grips with modernity.

Broadly stated that about sums it up. In detail, there are many things like the modern lady manager finding it difficult to manage men and vice versa as well as the expectations of the men not changing despite the working woman having to manage a career as well as a home. Indian males find it extremely difficult to accept that they can and should contribute to the running of the home. Change is taking place, but not with the speed with which I would like to see it.

With increasing woman work force entering the labour market, other tensions are also entering our society with single women finding it difficult to find accommodation etc.

We are in the process of change which is being thrust on us at a very scary speed and society is still learning to come to grips with it.

There is another very disturbing trend which is rural have nots coming into contact with urban haves and aspiring for the latter without appreciating the process that has gone before the haves behave the way they do.

In short it is a mess. I wish that I had the patience that you show to write about this subject. Let me see if I Can generate enough enthusiasm for a post!

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks for the fascinating comment, Ramana. I like the distinction between western and modern.

It's not patience on my part so much as curiosity, a continuing desire to understand.